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Thelma Howard's Legacy of Hope : As a Disney housekeeper, she found her happiest place on Earth. Her bequest will help children find theirs.

October 24, 1994|DUANE NORIYUKI | Los Angeles Times

He reminded us not to lose grasp of our dreams, reducing the process of hope and faith to its most simple terms--that we need only to wish upon a star. When Thelma Howard entered the home of Walt Disney in 1951, she brought her dreams with her, but it was a star she lacked.

For the next 30 years, Howard worked as live-in housekeeper/cook for Disney, his wife, Lillian, and their two children. It was a long way from her childhood home near Southwick, Idaho--a long way from the tragedy and misfortune that seemed to batter her down each time she managed to climb to her feet.

Her dreams were not lavish. Nothing about her was. She did not ask for fortune or fame, only for her wounds to heal, for laughter to replace a lifetime of tears. When she died, the world learned this month, she left a surprise to help children's dreams come true.

The same year Howard joined Disney's household, his studio released the animated version of a Lewis Carroll story. But Alice was not the only one who suddenly found herself in Wonderland.

It was an exciting time. In 1954 Disney's weekly television show began, and in 1955 Disneyland opened. Within the Holmby Hills home, says Diane Disney Miller, one of two Disney daughters, it was the dawn of "golden years."

Soon there would be the joy and laughter of grandchildren, who flocked not only to their grandparents, but to the woman who cleaned their house.

Thelma Howard was a handsome, quick-witted woman who loved football and the color pink. She smoked cigarettes, played a cunning game of gin rummy and baked a lovely boysenberry pie.

She was a confidante and friend to the Disney children and grandchildren. It was not a talent or way that she had with youngsters, says Miller.

"It was a gift."

Walt Disney referred to her as "the real-life Mary Poppins," although her nickname around the house was Fou-Fou, the closest one of the Disney grandchildren could come to pronouncing Thelma .

She was a perfectionist in her work, making sure the Disneys were well cared for down to the tiniest details, such as making sure the refrigerator was stocked with wieners.

When Disney came home from work, he would walk into the kitchen through the back door and oftentimes stop at the refrigerator to grab a couple of wieners--one for him and one for Lady, the family's French poodle; and the two of them would munch them down cold.

Howard was treated with fondness, and shared in the family's ups and downs. Each holiday season, Disney would reward her and other employees with a gift of Disney stock. Of course it wasn't worth much then, and many employees would have preferred cash.

In 1981, Howard retired to a modest two-bedroom bungalow in West L.A. Her health began failing. Her heart, her lungs--it seemed her entire body was simply wearing out.

She died last June 10, days before her 80th birthday, and was buried in a pink casket at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the Disney Studios.

Last Tuesday was the first meeting of the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation Board of Directors, charged with carrying out her final wish.

In her will, half of her estate was left to her son, Michael, now in his mid-50s and living in a Long Beach home for the developmentally disabled. The other half was to benefit disadvantaged and homeless children.

In all, it totaled more than $9 million.

Her mother died giving birth when Thelma was 6 years old.

One day that same year, Thelma and her sister, Louise, 8, were cooking dinner on a wood-burning stove. Louise opened the oven door to stoke the fire, and flames shot out, engulfing her dress. Thelma ran frantically to get their father, but Louise burned to death outside the farmhouse.

The family was poor, and while in high school, Thelma was ashamed to be seen riding horseback to school, so her brother, Jay Mill, would walk with her; and when they were a couple miles from town, she would dismount and walk the rest of the way while Jay returned home with their gray mare named Blue.

Shortly after graduating from high school, she left Idaho to attend a business college in Spokane. She hoped to become a legal secretary, but ran out of money and had to drop out.

She stayed briefly with relatives in Northern California and in 1931 moved to Los Angeles, where she did office work and cleaned homes.

Before working for the Disneys, she was married briefly and had a son, Michael, whose rebellious childhood led him to the McKinley School for Boys, a boarding school in Van Nuys. He and a friend lied about their ages and joined the Navy when they were 16.

Chris Harris, whose name then was Alva Lee Phillips, was a friend and an accomplice of Michael's, who often would spend weekends at the Disney home. He says he and Michael raised their share of hell together, but never at the Disney residence.

"Thelma was very strict and very dedicated to the Disneys," he says. "She laid down the rules and made sure we followed them."

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